Adrian Graffy

This is the second of three articles on Vatican II’s document on revelation. Adrian Graffy is Director of Evangelisation and Formation in the diocese of Brentwood, and parish priest of Gidea Park.


In an earlier article I recorded how the preliminary draft of a document on revelation (De fontibus revelationis) had not been universally welcomed. In the early weeks of the first session of the Second Vatican Council, in autumn 1962, work was progressing on alternative drafts. Scholars and experts were meeting groups of Council Fathers to explain what modern biblical studies were contributing to the life of the Catholic Church.

On 14 November 1962 the Council was due to begin consideration of the draft on revelation prepared by the Theology Commission under the leadership of Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani. The Council had been opened by Pope John five weeks earlier and much of this time had been spent in consideration of the draft document on the Liturgy.

On the morning of the appointed day Cardinal Ottaviani, who had been mysteriously absent from the Council for the previous two weeks, began by condemning the alternative drafts being prepared. This activity was forbidden by Canon Law, he affirmed.1He then handed over to Mgr Salvatore Garofalo, who was responsible for the draft. ‘Everyone knows that the principal task of an ecumenical council is to defend and promote Catholic doctrine,’ Garofalo began.2 Both Ottaviani and Garofalo rejected the criticisms that were being voiced. In their view the draft responded to Pope John’s desire to present Catholic teaching with new clarity.

During the morning no fewer than twelve of the fifteen Council Fathers who spoke were against the draft. While Cardinal Ruffini of Palermo and Cardinal Siri of Genoa approved it and emphasised the need to draw up rules for Catholic biblical scholars, such opinions were not shared by Cardinals Frings of Cologne, Alfrink of Utrecht, Suenens of Malines-Brussels, and Cardinal Bea, head of the newly formed SecretMyISAMt for Christian Unity. Cardinal Bea’s credentials were impeccable. He was a biblical scholar who had assisted in the production of Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical on the Bible, Divino Afflante Spiritu, and had been rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute for nineteen years. Bea knew that a Council statement on revelation was anticipated with great interest by other Christians, and feared that the draft as it was would not foster ecumenical understanding.3

What emerges here is not simply a battle over biblical studies but a whole new way of the Church relating in dialogue to those with other views. Cardinals Ruffini and Siri warned of the dire consequences of rejecting the draft. Ruffini was refused an audience with Pope John and wrote to him instead. On the afternoon of 16 November the SecretMyISAMt for Christian Unity met. Bea considered that the SecretMyISAMt should be involved in redrafting the document.

On the fourth day of discussion Bishop Emile-Joseph De Smedt of Bruges, a member of the SecretMyISAMt for Christian Unity, gave a very significant speech. The desire to produce ‘ecumenical texts’ was not about ‘giving in’ to Protestants or weakening the content of Catholic teaching; the intention was rather to express Catholic teaching in such a way as to foster ecumenical understanding. It was precisely this which Pope John declared to be a principal aim of the Council in his opening speech of 11 October 1962, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia. It was De Smedt’s opinion that the draft had to be rejected.4

Another significant intervention was that of Archbishop Dennis Hurley of Durban. He pointed out that the criticisms offered in earlier stages of the draft had not been heeded. A draft prepared by the SecretMyISAMt was more in keeping with the pastoral and ecumenical aims of the Council. Cardinal Laurean Rugambwa of Tanganyika suggested that the draft be revised by biblical and ecumenical experts.5

The decisive vote

On the morning of 20 November 1962 Archbishop Felici announced that a vote was to be taken on the draft document on revelation. The question asked of the Council Fathers was curious: ‘Should the discussion of De fontibus be suspended?’ The question sowed confusion. The Fathers were not being asked to vote for or against the draft. Was this to save embarrassment among those responsible for it? It was eventually clarified that agreeing that the discussion should be suspended implied dissatisfaction with the draft. So ‘yes’ meant ‘no’, and ‘no’ meant ‘yes’.6 Yves Congar OP in his journal entry for Tuesday 20 November 1962 explains another aspect of the vote. Some Fathers who were unhappy with the draft nevertheless voted ‘no’ in order to continue the discussion. It was their fear that voting ‘yes’, to suspend discussion, would mean that there would be no further work on a document on Scripture and Tradition at all. ‘Suspended’ would mean ‘suspended for good’.7 It does seem that a straight question, placet or non placet, would have avoided all the confusion.

Once the vote had been taken Archbishop Felici announced that the result would be given on the following day, causing dismay among the Fathers. Later in the morning Felici gave the result: 1,368 voted to suspend the debate; 822 voted against the motion; 19 were null. It was clear that a large majority were against the draft, but the regulatory two-thirds necessary to reject it had not been reached. It was the worst possible result.8

The following morning, after the Mass with which every day began, Felici read a message from Pope John. The Pope was concerned about the vote on the draft and, putting aside the regulations, announced the establishment of a ‘mixed commission’ to take the work forward. The presidents would be Cardinal Ottaviani and Cardinal Bea. O’Malley understands that Cardinal Leger of Montreal, who had an audience with Pope John the previous evening, was particularly influential in convincing him that it was necessary to intervene.9 Cardinal Bea’s suggestion, that the Theology Commission should work together with the SecretMyISAMt for Christian Unity, was to be adopted. But would it work?

The mixed commission

The first meeting of the mixed commission took place on 25 November 1962. There was considerable anxiety among many of the Council Fathers that the integrity of the Catholic faith might be compromised in the attempt to produce a text congenial to Protestants. The history of the Council makes clear that many Fathers experienced a profound learning experience by listening to others. Their initial positions were very often changed by openness to new opinions. Meanwhile Pope John had appointed new members to the mixed commission from among those who had voiced criticism of the draft on the sources of revelation, notably Cardinal Frings of Cologne and Cardinal Lienart of Lille.10

During the meeting it was decided that the title of the draft would be changed from ‘on the sources of revelation’ to ‘on divine revelation’. Subcommissions were set up to revise each of the chapters of the existing draft. Chapters 2 to 5 dealt with inspiration and inerrancy, the Old Testament, the New Testament, and Sacred Scripture in the Life of the Church. While progress in the subcommissions dealing with these chapters was relatively smooth, the first chapter, which bore the heading ‘on the twofold source of revelation’, was the focus of huge controversy.

After the subcommissions had done their work the mixed commission reassembled. There was still fierce disagreement on the subject of Scripture and Tradition. Despite the negative reaction to the original draft in the plenary sessions of the Council and the rejection of the draft by Pope John, powerful individuals remained unconvinced.

A tumultuous meeting

Burigana reports that the meeting on 7 December 1962 was particularly fraught.11 He reconstructs the procedure by reference to the council diaries of those present but admits that a certain amount is the result of conjecture. In the face of repeated attempts to assert the superiority of Tradition, Cardinal Bea once more maintained that the debate at present in progress among Catholic theologians on the relationship of Scripture and Tradition should not be shut down by a solemn conciliar definition. Furthermore, nothing should be said which would impede the ecumenical dialogue on such matters.

Cardinal Ottaviani, on the other hand, supported by Cardinal Ruffini and the Irish Cardinal Michael Browne, former Master of the Dominicans, affirmed that the greater extent of Tradition was a non-negotiable aspect of Catholic teaching. For Cardinal Ruffini of Palermo, Tradition was superior to Scripture both in quality and in quantity. Tradition should be defended precisely because it was not valued by Protestants. Its importance had been seen in the definition of new dogmas, the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Towards the end of what appears to have been a rather bad-tempered meeting a compromise formula produced by the author of the original draft, Salvatore Garofalo, achieved far from unanimous approval.

The first session of the Council ended on 8 December 1962, but the following weeks and months saw the mixed commission continuing its work. The central issue, whether Tradition has greater extent than Scripture, would not go away. Eventually a vote was taken in which the majority ruled out any statement of the superiority of Tradition. The new draft, De divina revelatione, was sent out at the order of Pope John in May 1963.

Meanwhile Pope John’s cancer had worsened. Pope John, who had endeared himself to the world, was approaching his end and would not see the fruits of his council. John XXIII died on 3 June 1963. What would be the fate of the Council, and what would be the fate of the document on divine revelation?

A new Pope

A few days after his election on 21 June 1963 Pope Paul VI announced that the Council would continue. Among those who remained dissatisfied with the draft on divine revelation the hope grew that their complaints would finally be heard.12 Meanwhile, Paul VI had let it be known that attacks on the Pontifical Biblical Institute would cease.

Reactions to the draft which had been sent out in May 1963 were mixed. Many were dissatisfied with the way Scripture and Tradition were presented. The conviction grew that De divina revelatione was not yet ready to be debated by the Fathers and should not be presented during the second session of the Council. The change of title had not been matched by an improved exposition about Scripture and Tradition and their place in divine revelation. For instance, the German bishops, who were very influential, thought that the focus of the document ought to be on the Word of God written down at the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and its importance for the Church, for its renewal and for the life of the individual believer.13 Such a focus would demonstrate the concern of the Catholic Church to renew its approach to Scripture and would considerably strengthen ecumenical dialogue. The German bishops suggested that discussion of revelation should be postponed until after the Council’s work on the document on the Church had progressed.

With his decades of experience of work in the Roman Curia Pope Paul had clear ideas about how things could be improved. He quickly revised the regulations for the running of the Council. In place of the ten presidents of the Council, a structure which had proved cumbersome, he established four Moderators, who would direct the work of the Council.14 Three of them were leaders of the majority in the Council, Cardinals Dopfner, Lercaro and Suenens. The fourth was the Prefect of Propaganda Fide, Cardinal Agagianian. Paul VI agreed that De divina revelatione should be omitted from the agenda of the second session to be held from September to December 1963, but the document would not be suppressed. It would return to the Theology Commission. The Mixed Commission’s life was ended.

Back to work

Pope Paul broadened the membership of the Theology Commission. New blood would ensure that the draft developed along the right lines, recognising the views of the majority of the Fathers. Among those brought in was Dom Christopher Butler, Abbot President of the English Benedictine Congregation. On 4th December 1963, in his closing speech for the second session, Paul VI referred explicitly to the continuing work on divine revelation.

On 7 March 1964 the Theology Commission set up a sub-committee to revise, or perhaps better rewrite, the draft of De divina revelatione. Among the experts available were Fr Yves Congar OP and Fr Karl Rahner SJ. Two groups were set up, the first dealing with the proemium and the first chapter, while the second dealt with the other chapters. The revision was to be guided by the views of the Fathers who had commented on the text of De divina revelatione sent out in May 1963.

A new draft was completed in April 1964. A major change was that the first chapter was now ‘on revelation’. The opening spotlight was therefore no longer on the controversy about Scripture and Tradition but rather on the origin of all revelation from God. The emphasis was truly removed from the ‘two sources’ to ‘revelation itself’.

In the same month the Pontifical Biblical Commission issued a significant teaching document on the historicity of the Gospels, known by its first words Sancta Mater Ecclesia. The document, while clearly in line with Pius XII’s Divino Afflante Spiritu, explained the positive aspects of form criticism and traced the three-fold development of the gospel tradition, from the life of Jesus to the oral tradition and to the written gospels. The document, signed by Paul VI on 21 April 1964, would be of great use for the developing text of De divina revelatione, especially as regards what it was to say about literary genres and the historical value of Scripture.15

The draft completed in April 1964 was reconsidered by the Theology Commission. Attempts were now made to undo the progress achieved in the subcommissions, especially in relation to Tradition. The minority would continue to fight for a statement on the insufficiency of Scripture and the greater extent, and therefore implied greater importance, of Tradition. This clearly would bring with it a return to the teaching on two sources of revelation.16 Despite the fact that these proposals were defeated once more in the Theology Commission, Cardinal Ottaviani insisted that the minority view could still be put to the Council Fathers.

Other delicate questions, such as the inerrancy of Scripture and the historical value of the Gospels, will also demand attention during the third and fourth sessions of the Council, in autumn 1964 and autumn 1965, and will guarantee that the drama around the document on revelation will persist to the bitter end. The draft of De divina revelatione, profoundly different from that of 1963, was submitted to the Council’s Co-ordinating Commission and sent out to the Fathers by order of Paul VI at the beginning of July 1964. The draft on revelation had been transformed with a great deal of effort, but the battle was far from over.n

1Burigana, R., La Bibbia nel Concilio (Il Mulino, 1998) p.103. Much of the detail of this second article is derived from Burigana’s detailed account.

2O’Malley, J., What Happened at Vatican II (Harvard University Press, 2008) p.142

3Burigana pp.134-135

4O’Malley pp.148-149

5Burigana pp.153-154

6O’Malley pp.149-150

7Congar OP, Y., Mon Journal du Concile (Cerf, 2000) volume I, p. 41-47. The journal is available in English from Dominican Publications.

8Burigana pp.158-159

9O’Malley pp.150-151

10Burigana p.174

11Burigana pp.182-191

12Burigana p.224

13Burigana p.235

14O’Malley p.167

15The text of Sancta Mater Ecclesia can be found in The Scripture Documents (edited by D. Bechard, The Liturgical Press, 2002) pp. 227-234

16Burigana pp.283-286

Category: March/April 2013
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